Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sexual Anxieties and Horror: Teeth

Sexuality and horror films often go together. They represent the promise of new life, the pleasure of intimacy coupled with the fear of death and the terror of isolation. Beginnings and endings are ideas I am pursuing in my dissertation. I'm interested in how these concepts emerge together in many contemporary controversies. Horror films are another place where beginnings and endings are merged seamlessly. In this three-post series, I take a comparative look at three horror films, Teeth, It Follows, and Crimson Peak. I find a pattern of sexual anxiety and sexual exploration that pushes boundaries of "normal" sexual behavior. If people haven't seen these films, or don't want to be "spoiled," this is a warning that I will be talking about film details and plot elements. These films have captured my imagination because they play with and expand on the agency and power of females, which I think is a positive (and at the very least interesting) trend in contemporary film.

Post image retrieved from this website.
This poster brings up an interesting correlation between Dawn's last name, O'Keefe, and the
association between flowers and vaginas in Georgia O'Keefe's paintings.
Teeth (2007) is about Dawn, an advocacy speaker for the purity movement at her church. When she is raped by a fellow church member, she discovers that she has vagina dentata or a "toothed vagina." These teeth act on their own accord and work to protect Dawn from her rapist, castrating him in a gruesome scene. At first, she is understandably frightened and considers her plight a result of her sin. After research about herself and these teeth, Dawn has an epiphany. Her enlightenment, as indicated by her name and frequent references to the sun, comes in the form of sexual empowerment, where she can use her teeth to her advantage. Although the teeth are not under Dawn's direct control, they do not attack in a scene where Dawn is enjoying consensual sex. When the same sex scene invites Dawn's scorn and rage, the teeth attack and emasculate him. There are certainly problems in this film that disempower Dawn. Dawn does not preemptively attack or fend off potentially negative sexual encounters. For Dawn to fight back in her unique way, she must first be penetrated and submit herself to the sexual advances of men. At the end of the film, Dawn takes refuge in a man's car, who begins licking his lips and making sexual advances towards Dawn. Knowledgeable that the imminent sexual encounter will result in his castration, she smiles.

Dawn at the end of the film. Image retrieved from Rotten Tomatoes.
This film blurs lines of consent in the sense that Dawn "willingly" engages in certain sexual encounters with the knowledge that her teeth would attack her sexual partner. Despite these issues, Teeth does show a sexual empowered female who explores her own sexuality and comes to terms with her unique strength and eroticism. In Audre Lorde's "The Uses of the Erotic," she argues, "the erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plan, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling" (p. 87). The erotic is a power that is oppressed and corrupted by dominant power structures to keep women from realizing its power. For Dawn, the religious group is the source of oppression, where her sexual power is "vilified, abused, and devalued" (p. 88). Issues of purity and virginity are non-identities, where a lack of participation (such as atheism or vegetarianism) in an action indicates membership. Lorde argues that this oppression keeps women "in the service of men" as "a distant/inferior" person (p. 88). Teeth offers Dawn the opportunity to reclaim her sexuality and eroticism from men who take advantage of her and only see her as a sexual object. Dawn transforms from a meek virgin to an empowered crusader throughout the film, in part from her increased knowledge about sexuality and the body. In one scene, Dawn removes a sticker (shaped liked a golden sun) from her sex ed textbook covering the anatomy of the vagina. The film makes a strong statement that her religious upbringing and lack of accurate and complete sexual education directly leads to her vulnerable, naive condition. It is through knowledge and an enlightenment religion that Dawn becomes a more powerful female. Lorde argues that when women embrace the erotic, they "rise up empowered" (p. 88).

Image retrieved from this website.
With that empowerment, however, comes scorn. Lorde said, "women so empowered are dangerous" (p. 88). Women who claim power and dare to challenge the system, as seen in the new movie Suffragette, they receive backlash. The contemporary feminist movement is often accused of grasping for more than women are due, that attempts at "equality" are really clothed attempts at dominance. Similar to arguments about affirmative action, those that oppose feminism truly fear losing their place in the system or damaging what is deemed "normal," and thus the desired order. In a recent r/ChangeMyView post on Reddit, a female redditor claimed that "Men are superior to women." Her reasons were because of men and women's physical differences and also the presence of men in more challenging/intellectual jobs. It's clear to me that even disturbances in an order that disadvantages women receives scorn from women themselves. If everyone is equal, perhaps there is no reason other than our own shortcomings to blame on our failures. Or, if everyone is equal, then perhaps our successes are not as meaningful as others. In a powerful article by Carole Blair, Julie R. Brown, and Leslie A. Baxter, they argue that the academic review process, filled with intelligent and intellectual women, is also a biased space. They respond to an article that ranks the publication count of female communication scholars and rejection letters they received on an earlier version of the article. Their attempt to challenge the ranking article was met with scorn and rejection from both male and female reviewers. They argue that the original report "is a thematic marker of a masculinist ideology and that the anonymous reviews of our original essay are unusually explicit manifestations of the apparatuses that sustain and enable those ideological themes" (p. 384).

Teeth brings up these important issues of female agency and how sexuality can be used as a force of attraction but also creating fear. This film puts an interesting spin on how female sexuality can itself be a weapon, the monstrous female fighting back with the strength of her form. I see many movies that laud the adjusted or upgraded female, such as Aeon Flux and Ultraviolet, but less often do I see films that empower the everyday female to fight back. There are definitely a notable few which I hope to address in a later post. As recent articles have suggested, it is oftentimes females who end up surviving horror films, oftentimes with the help and intervention of others. Teeth, however, empowers the female protagonist to use not only her self, but her sexual self, to survive.

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